Faster… faster!

As regular readers will have read yesterday, I just bought a 50mm f/1.2 L lens.

As some here have mentioned, this lens is not known for being the very sharpest at wide open apertures. It is also not known for being one of the cheapest: you can buy an f/1.8 lens for $120, so why spend $1,800 on a f/1.2 lens? Especially a prime lens-  meaning not a convenient “10-500mm” zoom lens?


  • It is yet another bit faster (meaning, lets in more light) than the f/1.4. A third of a stop more. And as you saw in my post of two days ago, that is important: every little bit helps.
  • And it allows me to blur the background even more.
  • And it gives me beautiful bokeh when used wide open.

Here’s an f/1.2 snap:

Food held out

Food held out

…and another one, showing nice blurry background:

Laptop at The Royal

Laptop at The Royal

Of course even at smaller apertures, like f/2.8, you can get a nice blurred background:

Hold out your glass...

Hold out your glass...

But wide open you get this wonderful soft bokeh (the nature of the blur):

Glass with bokeh

Glass with bokeh

And that is why I am happy to invest in this type of lens.

Plus unlike a camera, a lens keeps its value. A lens’s value depends on the intrinsic value of the optical glass, so it is great.

So when people ask me “should I spend money on a lens or on a new camera”, well – you know they are both great and useful and fun. So either decision is good. But lenses are more important to your photos, and they keep their value, so do not ever feel bad about purchasing a great lens.

Data mining

Photography is not about gear. It is about art, expressions, emotion, colour. About the end product, not about what you use to get there.

Right. But it does start with gear. I thought, therefore, that you might be interested in what lenses I used for what shoots. I get asked this rather a lot. So I did some data mining of my shoots of the last few years.

Michael Willems's Lenses

Michael's Lenses


First I picked some recent event shoots: “grip and grins”. The lenses I uses were, out of a total of thousands of images:

Canon 1D Mark IV (1.3 crop factor):

  1. 42% – 24-70 f/2.8 (equiv. 30-90) (by shoots, this is number 2)
  2. 39% – 70-200 f/2.8 (equiv. 90-260) (by shoots, this is number 1)
  3. 17% – 16-35 f/2.8 (equiv. 20-45)
  4. 1% – 35mm f/1.4 (equiv. 45)
  5. 1% –  50mm f/1.4 (equiv. 65)

Canon 1Ds Mark III (full frame)

  1. 51% – 16-35 f/2.8
  2. 33% – 24-70 f/2.8
  3. 12% – 35mm f/1.4
  4. 2% – 70-200 f/2.8
  5. 1% –  50mm f/1.4

That is interesting. On the 1Ds, I use the 35mm f/1.4 lens in too few shoots (a lovely lens!).


Now the total, all types of shoots, out of a total of tens of thousands of images::

Canon 1D Mark IV (1.3 crop factor):

  1. 49% – 24-70 f/2.8 (equiv. 30-90)
  2. 25% – 16-35 f/2.8 (equiv. 20-45)
  3. 19% – 70-200 f/2.8 (equiv. 90-260)
  4. 3% – 35mm f/1.4 (equiv. 45)
  5. 2% –  50mm f/1.4 (equiv. 65)
  6. 2% – 100mm macro

Canon 1Ds Mark III (full frame)

  1. 33% – 24-70 f/2.8
  2. 27% – 16-35 f/2.8
  3. 19% – 70-200 f/2.8
  4. 13% – 35mm f/1.4
  5. 5% –  50mm f/1.4
  6. 3% – 100mm macro

One surprise here is how often I use a specialty lens like the macro. The real surprising thing is how often I use the 24-70, on both cameras.

Here is another breakdown: What focal length do I use in event shoots. More data mining from Lightroom gives me this (out of aroud 2,000 shots in a number of event shoots):

Michael's event shoot focal lengths

Michael's event focal lengths

As you see, peaks at 35mm for the full frame and at 70-200mm for the 1.3 crop camera.

So for an event, here are a few suggested combos.

Large room: A good safe “vanilla” combo, for larger rooms:

  • 1Ds with 24-70
  • 1D with 70-200

Smaller Room: Another safe combo, good for wider shots, e.g. in smaller rooms:

  • 1Ds with 16-35
  • 1D with 24-70

Creative: A slightly riskier combo, great for both wide effects and long shots (and covering a super-wide range, but maybe a bit riskier because the range between “real” 35-90 is missing):

  • 1Ds with 16-35
  • 1D with 70-200

Dark: Finally, a combo for darker rooms:

  • 1Ds with 35 f/1.4 prime
  • 1D with 70-200 – or with 50mm f/1.4!

Of course you can also just pick what you have. I mentioned a friend and student who recently showed me a wedding he had shot entirely with a 35mm (equivalent) lens. You do not need to obsess too much.

That said, it is fun to use the tools in the best possible way. And I strongly recommend that you also make checklists.

Nifty Fifty

Everyone should own a fast 50mm lens, I keep saying. “Fast” meaning a prime, large aperture lens (like a 50mm f/1.8, or even a 50mm f/1.4, like this one:)

50mm fast lens, product photo by Michael Willems

50mm fast lens, by Michael Willems

One student asks a good question about this:

“I recently attended your travel photography and Nikon Pt. 2 classes. You spoke about the value of a 50 mm lens. I have a Nikon D90, which is not full frame therefore I am wondering if you still recommend the 50 mm over a 35 mm.”

Good question.

As you know, a small sensor camera (like most of today’s DSLRs) appears to “lengthen” the lens (search this blog for “crop factor” to see why). So a 50mm lens will work like a “real” 80mm lens.

In “real” terms,

  • 50mm is a “standard” lens;
  • 80mm is a great portrait lens for half-length portraits and headshots.

So presumably we should all start with a “real” 50mm lens? On a regular (non-“full frame”) DSLR, that means you need to buy a 35mm lens.

So is my advice really “buy a lens marked 35mm” or “buy a lens marked 50mm”?

Ideally, both. But if you have to choose, start with the 50, because:

  • You’ll want to do headshots sooner or later;
  • Sometimes you’ll use it for product or detail-shots, too;
  • Above all: it is very affordable.

Most manufacturers make a 50mm f/1.8 that costs around $150 or less.  A bargain, and something you just need to put in your camera bag.

Detroit speaks: Cubic Inches

Detroit used to say: there’s no substitute for cubic inches.

And indeed there isn’t. Wanna have torque: need a big engine.

Similarly, in cameras there’s no substitute for lots of glass. Here’s a shot the other day in a bar with live music:

A scene in a bar ion College Street with live music, shot by Michael Willems

Bar on College Street with live music

So can I do this with my point and shoot, or with a kit lens?

Alas, no. With a fast lens I was using the following settings:

  1. Sensitivity set to 1,600 ISO
  2. Manual exposure mode
  3. Aperture at f/1.4
  4. Shutter at 1/30th second
  5. No flash

Surely there are better solutions than spending money on a fast lens! Could I have used a cheaper lens? Not with those settings: the picture would have been too dark.

  • Higher ISO then? No, most cameras will not go higher than 1,600 – or if they do, much noise results.
  • Longer shutter speed? No, the girl would have been a big blur.
  • Just use Flash? No, the black walls did not afford flash bounce capability and direct flash would lead to a really bad picture.

So, sometimes you need the power of fast prime (fixed focal length) lenses. And that is why my 35mm f/1.4 lens is my favourite party lens.

Zoom zoom zoom.

A beginner’s question this time:

What does zoom have to do with wide angle? I thought they were two opposite things!

Not necessarily. A “zoom” lens is simply an adjustable lens. As opposed to a prime lens.

What you are perhaps confusing with a “zoom” lens, dear student, is a telephoto lens.

Let me explain.

There are two main types of lenses:

  1. Zoom – this means adjustable focal length.
  2. Prime – this means not adjustable: you have to zoom in by stepping forward.

And, an entirely unrelated classification, there are various lengths of lenses:

  • Wide angle – roughly, less than 24mm on a crop camera
  • Standard – roughly, 30-40 mm on a crop camera
  • Telephoto – roughly, longer than 50 on a crop camera

So a 10-20mm zoom lens is a wide angle zoom lens. A 24-105 zoom lens is a wide-to-telephoto zoom. A 24mm prime is a wide angle prime lens. And so on!

f/1.8 lens, stopped down, shot with f/1.4 lens, open

I have many times recommended 50mm f/1.8 lenses, and I’ll try to inspire you once more to go out and get one right now. Most manufacturers have a cheap lens like this:


As you will have heard me say many times, this lens is cheap, small, light, fast and sharp.

Ideal for portraits or for low-light subjects or images where you want to dramatically blur the background. If this lens is not in your kit yet, I recommend you add it immediately.

As you will have seen in the previous post, I shot Prof Dawkins yesterday with just sich a lens (my 50mm f/1.4).